Laying Down the Lines: A History of Land Surveying in Alberta


326 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-897142-04-8
DDC 526.9'097123




Reviewed by David W. Leonard

David W. Leonard is the project historian (Northern Alberta) in the
Historic Sites and Archives Service, Alberta Community Development. He
is the author of Delayed Frontier: The Peace River Country to 1909 and
co-author of The Lure of the Peace River Coun


Shortly after the young Dominion of Canada acquired Rupert’s Land in
1870, the government created a Department of the Interior to oversee the
development of this “great lone land.” Among the issues facing the
Department was the orderly settlement of the region, at least those
parts that seemed appropriate for large-scale farming. A Dominion Land
Survey was thus set up, and surveyors were sent out to determine the
meridians and base lines north of the 49th parallel. For land
settlement, it was decided to adopt the grid system of townships already
employed in the western United States, with each township subdivided
into 144 quarter-sections, and each quarter covering 160 acres. At the
time, one quarter seemed appropriate for a small family farm.

The plight of the Dominion Land Surveyors in the Alberta portion of the
North-West Territories, and their successors, the Alberta Land
Surveyors, is the subject of Larmour’s thorough analysis. In addition
to townships, the work covers the survey of political boundaries, Indian
reserves, settlements, colonization schemes, irrigation projects,
roadways, and railway beds. All aspects of surveying are explained. Even
the technical details are covered, from the basic sextants to the
electronic distance measurement devices of today. Sidebars provide
detailed counterparts to the running text. There is also a rich variety
of explanatory drawings and archival photos.

Surveying in Western Canada involved many political considerations, and
this book places surveying in its broader historical context. During the
Northwest Rebellion of 1885, the surveyors in the West formed a Dominion
Land Survey Intelligence Corps, for knowledge of the countryside would
obviously be critical in a guerrilla war. The location of reserves for
the region’s First Nations was a particularly sensitive point, as the
government wanted to encourage Euro-Canadian settlement on productive
soil, but also encourage the Natives to become farmers.

The photos do not appear to have been fine-screened, and many have lost
their edge because of this. Also, the softcover version of the book is
simply too bulky for 325 (8Ѕ x 11) pages to be read comfortably. Those
quibbles aside, Laying Down the Lines is an excellent work of


Larmour, Judy., “Laying Down the Lines: A History of Land Surveying in Alberta,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,